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Detox Diet Dangers & Health Risks

Many who have a difficult time losing weight are eager to try anything that may make the pounds come off faster. The popularity of cleansing or detoxification diets that promise quick weight loss by "cleansing" the body of built up environmental toxins that they point to as being the cause of weight gain and illness has made it a multi-million dollar industry. While it’s true that weight loss can be achieved with these types of diets, it is usually not permanent, and there are potential health risks as well.

While specific diet regimens vary, most detox diets share a common regimen of eating extremely low-calorie, primarily liquid meals. Some, for example, advise users to consume only specially formulated drinks or raw foods, while others require the elimination of carbohydrates, sweets or proteins for a specified period—anywhere from a few days to an entire month.

These diets claim to rid the body of toxins that invade the body through environmental pollution or from such activities as smoking, eating processed foods on a regular basis, drinking alcohol or consuming caffeine. A very popular detox diet, the Master Cleanse or Lemonade Diet, developed by Stanley Burroughs in the 1970s, permits only 6 to 12 glasses per day of a mixture made up of lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper.

Another modified fast that is gaining in popularity is the juice diet, a type of detox diet that usually involves the short-term consumption of only raw vegetable and fruit juices, and water. Between 32 and 64 ounces of freshly juiced fruits and vegetables are recommended per day during the fast, including celery, carrots, kale, cabbage, spinach, beets, greens, apples, pineapples, and cranberries. It is usually recommended that all fruits and vegetables be organic, with citrus fruits usually on the list of those to be avoided.

The weight loss achieved during a detox diet is mostly due to the loss of fluid and muscle. Following this type of diet in the long-term without the supervision of a health care professional can lead to serious, life-threatening electrolyte imbalances that can result in cardiac arrest. Other common side-effects are dehydration, fatigue, headache, mood swings, irritability, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Any detox diet that significantly restricts calories or relies on liquid-only consumption deprives the body of the essential nutrients it needs in order to function. The lack of needed vitamins and minerals usually gotten from food can cause inflammation and weaken the body’s immune system, reducing its ability to fight infection.

Certain claims made by fans of detox-dieting can be misleading. For example, many report feeling less bloated; caused simply because they're eating less food. Those who report newly glowing skin are most likely experiencing the benefits of improved hydration rather than detoxification. And as for those dieters who report a reduction in headaches, chances are that it can be traced to decreased consumption of alcohol and caffeine.

Studies have shown that the practice of severe calorie restriction or skipping meals actually slows down your metabolism, making it all the more difficult to lose weight. A slow metabolism makes it hard for the body to perform its daily functions, and without adequate carbohydrate intake it will turn to consuming its own muscle for energy, which slows down the metabolism even further, as the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. With a slower metabolism, once you resume your normal eating patterns not only will you regain the weight you lost, but it’s likely you’ll gain even more back than what you had before you began the diet.

Some people should avoid this type of diet altogether, including people with diabetes, low blood sugar, eating disorders, or growing children, teens, pregnant women, and older adults. Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), says “Pregnant women, children, and teens need enough calories and protein every day for proper growth and development. And older adults have unique nutrition needs that are sometimes difficult to meet, even on an unrestricted diet.”

“Detox diets can affect our ability to maintain blood sugar levels within normal,” she continues. “If you are taking diabetes medications, you may put yourself in danger of too low of blood glucose by cutting out food groups but continuing to take your medication. You should never alter your diabetic medications or make drastic changes in your diet without consulting your doctor or dietician. Medications must be balanced with the food you eat.

Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, senior nutrition scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, recommends that if people are really determined to try a detox diet they ease in and out of it gradually, so as to avoid possible harsh side-effects. “It’s important not to go from drinking [the Master Cleanse liquid] for four days to eating fast food. Your body is going to feel terrible, and it’s going to respond badly,” she says. “Typically, they say that the same number of days you use for the fast, you should have a run-in phase that’s as long and a coming-off phase that’s as long. So if you were going to fast for three days, you would want to take three days to get to the fast—maybe stop eating processed foods, then eat only fruits and vegetables, then eat only liquids, and then go to water.”

Unless you have a medical problem, your body naturally rids itself of toxins through the skin, liver, kidneys and lungs. Following a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and water, while eliminating smoking and reducing intake of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol will allow the body to cleanse itself without resorting to dangerous diets.

Short detox diets of a day are two are usually not harmful, but their main advantage is in getting people to take a break from their usual eating habits, helping to break the unhealthy eating cycle - not by "detoxifying their body". The important thing is in learning to gradually incorporate healthier foods into your diet while eliminating the unhealthiest ones. You will find that, as you eat more fruits and vegetables and reduce the consumption of sugars and unhealthy fats such as that used in fried foods, your weight will gradually come down, which has proven to be the healthiest and longest-lasting way to reduce weight.

Lanou stresses, “It’s what you do after the fast or after the cleanse period that ends up affecting your overall body weight. It’s only going to really benefit you if you follow it with healthy eating afterwards.”



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